I saw this film without any preconceptions and after about a third of its running time (it lasts over 140 minutes) I was both nonplussed and slightly irritated by the strategy of having the central character read from various documents. A rave with strobe lighting then tested my attentiveness but I stuck with it and at two thirds of the way through I thought there might be something about to happen. And it does. The last third is some form of revelation (though not a conventional narrative resolution). I mention these points simply because at least one person walked out of our screening and very negative reviews on IMDB also suggest that others left screenings elsewhere. I’m glad I stayed, but I understand why others lost patience. It’s difficult not to see this as a very ‘French’ film – Scott Foundas, the reviewer at Village Voice (generally a good review) suggests that you might need to show your passport to view it.
The film involves a further meditation on the central concern of many European films – the legacy of the Holocaust and in this case its connection to German business interests. The ‘hero’ is a psychologist working in ‘human resources’ (or personnel, as we used to call it) for a French subsidiary of a German multinational petrochemical engineering company (significantly established in France since 1929). Simon, played by Mathieu Amalric, is given the task of writing an appraisal of the CEO whose behaviour has been worrying another senior figure in the company (whose role is not immediately clear). It is this appraisal which prompts the revelations about the past. Simon’s previous work in the company has seen him helping management to reduce the labour force by identifying who should be made redundant. At the same time, he is recruiting new, younger staff and organising ‘team-building’ exercises. Simon’s surname is ‘Kessler’ and he comes from Strasbourg – suggesting that he too is French/German and implicated in the dubious past.
Simon is certainly ‘dealing with people’, crucially affecting their careers and their lives. His own personal life is something of a mess with a part-time lover, Louisa, and a circle of friends/acquaintances who appear to come from various immigrant communities. This provides the second form of human degradation in the narrative with references to the technologies developed to track people being moved illegally through French and English ports. Whereas the French title of the film (the ‘human question’) refers more broadly to the philosophical question of the ethics of business, the English title ‘Heartbeat Detector’ refers to the equipment which finds the immigrants hiding in cross-border shipments. At least, I think this is the case. I’ve read several reviews and none seem to recognise the importance of this aspect of the narrative – perhaps I imagined it? It’s that kind of film. On the other hand, perhaps American reviewers didn’t pick up the importance of stories which we recognise in a UK context (i.e. a container full of migrants suffocated during transit).
The other marker of humanity or the human spirit in the film comes from music. Simon discovers that the CEO, Mathias Jüst, once formed a music quartet with three others from the company and Simon uses the ruse of attempting to revive an interest in classical music amongst the staff to get the CEO to open up. The confrontations between Simon and Mathias are amongst the best bits of the film. Mathias is played by the veteran actor Michael Lonsdale and many commentators have pointed to the coincidence of two Bond villains questioning each other (Amalric is the next Bond villain and Lonsdale played Hugo Drax in Moonraker). The classical music played by the quartet is contrasted by the ‘industrial’ techno at the rave and also by a traditional fado/flamenco ballad performed acapella (and thus the most ‘authentic’ music?).
In the final third, the reading out of letters and testaments is revealed to be part of a philosophical treatise on language. Part Foucault and Derrida, part Chomsky, this is heady stuff which in the final sequences becomes perhaps surprisingly a little glib. Nevertheless it is a thought-provoking and disturbing film.
The director Nicolas Klotz is listed on IMDB as a Professor at FEMIS, the major French film school. He has directed several films, none of which have previously got a release in the UK (to my knowledge). (Although the BBFC website reveals that an earlier film was certificated on video (The Bengali Night 1990, in English with the unlikely casting of Hugh Grant and Shabani Azmi)). I understand that La question humaine is the last part of an unofficial trilogy. The film was shot on 16mm (IMDB) and the print I saw had been transferred to a digital projection print. This possibly increased the impact of the muted colour scheme of blues and greys. Some of the long shots looked fairly pixellated to me. The print is presented in the European standard of 1.66:1. This gives it an old-fashioned and documentary look – taking it away from other films representing the modern glass and chrome world of European business (e.g. Yella).